Tuesday, March 29, 2016

receiving Christ

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Maundy Thursday, Year C, 2016

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

We have arrived once again to this beautiful and simple Thursday of Holy Week, the kickoff to the 3 holiest days of the church year. The Maundy Thursday foot washing is my absolute favorite service, but for some it is a source of—at best—discomfort and—at worst—distress. How is it that a bowl, a towel, and a pitcher of water can produce so much anxiety?

If the idea of washing feet makes you squeamish, you’re in good company. On that night 2,000 years ago, Peter felt much the same. As Jesus and the disciples gathered in the upper room, Jesus took his coat off, wrapped a towel around his waist, and began to wash his disciples’ dirt-covered, calloused feet. I can only imagine Peter staring in horror as Jesus made his way over to him. You see, washing feet was a slave’s responsibility, not the job of the Son of God. Peter initially refused to have his feet washed; he didn’t want to embarrass the man he believed was the Messiah. He had watched Jesus’ feet being washed by Mary just a few days before, and that was awkward enough. But Jesus told Peter that he must allow Jesus to wash his feet if he wanted any part in Jesus’ ministry.

In a way, foot washing is a reminder of baptism. In baptism our sins are forgiven and we receive the Holy Spirit; in baptism we are washed clean. Maybe Jesus knew that the disciples’ tired feet were going to see some rough days ahead and thought they could use some tender care. Maybe he knew that if they only gave but never received—if they never allowed themselves to be truly vulnerable with others—that they would never understand that all of us are in need of God’s grace, mercy, and love.

We Americans pride ourselves on our self-reliance. We boast about being self-made, about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, about not getting any handouts. We want people to think we have it all together. For us one of the worst things imaginable is the thought of having to rely on others to survive.

But no matter how much we desperately try to control things, the hard truth is that we can’t save ourselves. Despite what we post on Facebook, we don’t really have it all together. We are in need of saving; we are in need of a Savior.

Over the past few years I’ve watched my grandmother, who will be 94 in June, grow old gracefully. As she has aged she has gradually had to relinquish more and more of her independence. One of the first things to go was her car. Since none of her family lived nearby, friends and people from her church took turns taking her to doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, and the gym. Rather than stay at home because she was embarrassed to ask for help, she allowed people to minister to her. She served her church faithfully for decades and then the roles were reversed.

In our culture of self-reliance, it’s easy to feel good when we do something nice for others and then go back to our regular, comfortable way of life. I’m guilty of this, too. But this top-down kind of service doesn’t cut it. The people we serve have something to offer us, too; we have to be willing to receive.

After Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, he shared the Passover meal with them. But this time it was different. Instead of the usual Passover phrases, after the blessing Jesus took the bread and told the disciples “this is My body” and then took the cup and told the disciples “this is My blood.” He told them to repeat this when they gathered together in the future, but this was more than just a reminder of who he was and what he practiced; Jesus knew he was going to die, so he gave his disciples a way to continue to have access to him beyond the grave.

Jesus continues to give us access to him in the Eucharist, but the emphasis is not on us actively seeking him out. We like to be in control of our lives, but when it comes to Christ we have to give that control up, we have to let ourselves be vulnerable. In baptism we receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, and in the washing of feet we receive grace. Likewise, when we come to the table we don’t seize Christ, we don’t grab him with our hands, but we hold out our hands, palms open, and receive him. We are not doing to Christ, but letting Christ do unto us.

You’ve heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” When we take part in the Eucharist, when we open ourselves up to receive Christ’s body and blood, our makeup—the very essence of who we are—is fundamentally changed; we are literally becoming the Body of Christ.

And as we become the Body of Christ we are reminded not only of our need for Christ, but our need for each other. Now, as much as ever, it seems we need each other. We have to rely on one another, because we can’t build the kingdom on our own. God is calling us to put all of our individual gifts into the mix. After all, the kingdom of God is really about our interconnectedness, our interdependence, and our communion with God. 

Tonight let us not think of ourselves as the servant or even the served, but rather let us receive the spirit of God, receive the body of Christ, and together let’s receive one another so that we can more perfectly love as Christ loved us.

So be washed, be fed, and receive Christ.

foot washing image found here

Eucharist image found here